I’d been waiting for this movie to be aired. I even set aside a project just to make time to watch it this evening. It was broadcast on PBS’ ‘American Experience’ which was a short turnaround because only two months ago it was coming off an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. It didn’t win but it is worth the view and definitely delivers.
The movie is exactly what it is billed as, the last days in South Vietnam when thousands of Americans and nearly 200,000 Vietnamese had to be evacuated when the North re-invaded the South. I sincerely doubt that more than 10% of Americans know what happened, how the war even ended. The war isn’t taught in schools here, let alone the chaos of the last month. That makes a documentary like this not only more powerful but essential for preserving history.
The movie is based on the men who lived it – both Americans and South Vietnamese. Some of the accounts are new to the historical record. There is the guy on the USS Kirk who spoke into a tape recorder, a minute here – a minute there, as helicopters flown by South Vietnamese escaping the country landed on his ship. One would land and then the crew would push it overboard because the ship could only take one helicopter. They pushed the copters overboard to make room for the next one in line.
There is the account of the American helicopter pilot who was the first to land at the embassy. He’d be flying 18 hours straight before the ordeal was over. My favorite pilot was the guy who was blind in one eye, lame in one leg, he flew the helicopter to rescue the CIA station chief in what is now probably the most famous picture of those hours.
There is the Marine officer at the Embassy who was heartbroken – emotionally ripped apart – when he discovered he had to lie to 400 plus Vietnamese still on the Embassy grounds. He was one of the last soldiers to leave and knew the civilians weren’t going to be rescued. There was the harrowing moment when the last 11 soldiers found themselves abandoned and forgotten, stranded on the roof of the Embassy and how the last one among them – the last to leave the country – tripped and almost didn’t make it. Of course there are the tales of the South Vietnamese left behind who’d be captured and spend years in re-education camps.
One of the biggest surprises for me was the saga of Richard Armitage. I previously knew of Armitage from his days as Asst. Sec. of State during the George W. Bush era which of course means he was involved in the whole Iraq debacle, although like Colin Powell, I think he realized he’d been duped in the end. However, I didn’t know of his role in rescuing civilians in South Vietnam.
I’ll have to take back some of the things I said about him over the Iraq issue because in Vietnam he proved to be a better man than most. He not only planned the escape of hundreds but once at sea, he was placed in command of a flotilla of refugee ships and without asking for permission, took the personal initiative (and thus the consequential ramifications) for sailing them to a third country. As he phrased it, it was easier to ask for forgiveness than seek permission. Basically, he saved tens of thousands of lives by that action.
That really is a theme that emerges from this movie. For all the lies, deception, chaotic failure that the Vietnam war was, in those last days/hours brave men and women on their own stepped up to the plate to save others. You kept hearing the phrase, “it was the right thing to do” in the eyewitness accounts. As we all know, the right thing isn’t always easy to do.
PBS typically allows for free streaming of their shows on their website after the initial airing. So there is a chance this movie will be available on there for awhile. I’m also sure they will repeat it. This is a must watch documentary about a moment in history that has largely been forgotten but shouldn’t be.